On July 6, 2012, a jury in Orange County returned a guilty verdict in the trial of a Vista man, Bernard Smith, accused of murdering a drug dealer several years ago. The case involved allegations that the defendant, along with another man, went to the home of the drug dealer, shot him to death, and stole the man’s cocaine.
This was the second time a jury had found Smith guilty of the murder, but the first conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals. The basis for the appeal, and the reversal, involved the use at the first trial, in which Smith and two co-defendants were jointly tried in a single proceeding, of a videotape of one the co-defendants. In that videotape, which was shown to the jury, one of the co-defendants was interviewed by police. During the interview, he made a statement which, when added to other evidence in the case, tended to show that Smith was one of the defendants who chased the drug dealer and actually committed the murder. The issue of which of the co-defendant’s was directly responsible for the murder was a central focus in the trial. Smith’s attorney objected to the introduction of the evidence, but the objection was overruled. The judge did, however, instruct the jury that the videotape evidence should not be considered against Smith, only against the co-defendant who made the statement.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals of California reversed Smith’s murder conviction. In doing so, the court held that the use of the co-defendant’s videotaped statements violated Smith’s “confrontation clause” rights.
What is the confrontation clause?
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him . . .” Similarly, under Article 1 § 15 of the California Constitution, the “defendant in a criminal cause has the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against the defendant.” The purpose of these provisions is to insure that you are not convicted based upon hearsay statements concerning your actions. You have the right to allow a jury to determine whether your accuser is telling the truth, and this includes your right to cross-examine any such witnesses.
In the Smith case, you might wonder why, if confrontation is the issue, and Smith’s co-defendant, who made the statement, was sitting next to Smith at the defense table, the principle was applied in this case and led to a reversal of the conviction. The answer is that Smith’s co-defendant chose, as he has a right to do, to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and to refuse to testify at the trial. That effectively left Smith with a statement, which the jury could find as evidence of Smith’s guilt, made by a person Smith’s attorney was unable to cross-examine. This was the violation of Smith’s rights that led to the conviction being overturned.
What about the Limiting Instruction Given to the Jury?
As we noted above, the trial judge instructed the jury that while it could consider the videotape evidence against the defendant who was videotaped, it could not consider it as evidence against Smith. And the fact is that limiting instructions of this nature are given to juries on a regular basis. The Court of Appeals stated in essence that where, as here, a statement contains a strong inference of guilt, the limiting instruction does not cure the admission of evidence containing that statement. Finally, the court held that the error by the trial judge in admitting the evidence could not be said to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, it reversed Smith’s initial murder conviction.
Why Do Prosecutors Seek Joint Trials?
The policy offered by prosecutors to support joint trials for co-defendants is one of judicial economy. Why have separate trials, and separate costs, they argue, when the whole case can be handled in one proceeding? There are two answers to this question. First, judicial economy is not always served by joint trials, as can be seen in the Smith case. Indeed, the failure to permit separate trials from the outset resulted in an appeal, years of delay, and a retrial of one of the defendants. Second, while judicial economy is the public rationale in defense of the practice, in reality, prosecutors like joint trials because if they can show strong evidence of guilt on the part of one defendant, the taint of guilt can easily rub off and adversely affect the chances of the other defendants. For that same reason, defense lawyers often seek a severance of the trial of their client from that of one or more co-defendants.
If you have been charged with a crime in the San Diego area, contact a criminal defense attorney with extensive trial experience to defend your case. Call us today for a free consultation.
Spiegel Law Group
109 West C Street
San Diego, CA 92101